American Outlook
June/July 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

The situation in the Middle East was spiraling out of control. Israelis and Arabs were fighting pitched battles, and a cycle of terror and reprisals threatened to explode into full-blown war. Amid the mounting crisis, the president turned to his cabinet for advice. Although he was leaning toward supporting the Israelis, he wanted to hear from the experts. Many in the cabinet room agreed with the president and urged him to stand by the Israelis, but perhaps the most influential voice of all disagreed. That voice belonged to the secretary of state. A decorated war hero and beloved national leader in his own right, he reminded the president that such overt support for the Israeli position could jeopardize America’s long-term interests throughout the Arab world. Incredibly, he even warned the president that he would vote against him in the next election, if he went ahead and sided with the Israelis.[1]

Before igniting a political firestorm, I should probably add that it wasn’t Colin Powell who issued such a terse rejoinder. In fact, this particular cabinet-room exchange happened more than five decades ago, when Harry Truman and George Marshall squared off over Israel’s looming statehood. Truman won the argument, and the United States recognized Israel 11 minutes after it declared independence. No one knows for certain if Marshall made good on his threat. However, the account underscores Israel’s importance to America—and America’s importance to Israel.

A Grim History

Of course, this special relationship began before the modern state of Israel was born in 1948. Britain advocated the creation of a Jewish state in 1917, in an overt attempt to gain support among Jewish Americans for the Great War. Responding to Britain’s Balfour Declaration, waves of Jewish immigrants flowed into Palestine from 1919-1939. The first wave came from Russia just after the war; the second came from Poland in the mid-1920s and early 1930s; the third, numbering 144,000, came from Germany as Hitler plunged a continent into darkness. Few of those who stayed behind would live to see Jerusalem. 

The impact the Holocaust had on America’s view of Israel cannot be overstated. It was visceral and personal—and it was brought home and made real by the American GI. From Gen. Dwight Eisenhower on down the line, America’s returning conquerors gave voice and vision to Hitler’s unspeakable crimes. It was easy to discount or dismiss what newsmen reported; it was quite another thing to hear a son, sweetheart, husband, or father describe the Nazi death camps at Dachau or Buchenwald. As Eisenhower explained to a group of journalists, dignitaries and subordinates in 1945, “Your responsibilities, I believe, extend into a great field, and informing the people at home of things like these atrocities is one of them...The barbarous treatment these people received in the German concentration camps is almost unbelievable. I want you to see for yourself and be spokesmen for the United States.”[2]

Armed with that information, US groups helped European Jews immigrate to the Middle East, reversing the great Diaspora and setting the stage for war. By 1947, with Arabs and Jews fighting over large chunks of the British mandate, the United States openly endorsed a UN-sponsored partition of Jewish and Arab lands. Jewish leaders accepted the plan, albeit reluctantly; Arab leaders rejected it, thus sentencing Arabs in Palestine to a stateless future. When the mandate expired, Israel was born; the Arab League declared war; and the nascent, amorphous Jewish state was besieged by the armies of Egypt, Trans-Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  

In the span of a year, an armistice would end Israel’s war for independence—at least in a technical sense. After 1949, Israel would begin fighting an endless war for its existence, entering what historian Michael Walzer aptly describes as “a grim and unusual history.” To get a sense of how grim and unusual Israel’s history is, consider an account Walzer unearthed from 1953:  

“Following the killing of a woman and her two children in a village near Lod Airport, the Israelis launched a night attack against the…village of Khibye. They fought their way into the village, rounded up the inhabitants and blew up 45 houses…The brutality of the raid led to sharp protests in Israel and abroad.”[3]

Sadly, not much has changed in Israel. Fifty years later, Israel is still fighting this unconventional war. In a very real sense, the fighting has never stopped. Rather, the unconventional fighting has been interrupted by short bursts of full-blown warfare.

Yet even as it waged this draining war, Israel didn’t close its doors. Between the war for independence and the 1956 Suez Crisis, 687,000 Jews returned to Israel, doubling the population. It was American aid, both public and private, that helped feed and house the tiny country’s exploding population during this critical period. However, it wasn’t until 1962 that the United States made a concerted effort to equip the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The military aid, like the humanitarian aid a decade earlier, came not a moment too soon. Between 1963 and 1967, Arab governments put in place a plan to finish what they started in 1948: First, they created the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which promptly launched terrorist attacks throughout Israel. Next, they developed a coordinated military command and cemented a formal alliance that included Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Finally, Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser blocked Israeli shipping from the Straits of Tiran and deployed forces in the Sinai desert. “Our basic objective,” seethed Nasser, “will be the destruction of Israel.”[4]

In response, the Israeli military launched perhaps the most famous and successful preventive war in history. In six days in June 1967, the Israelis routed the pan-Arab armies, seized the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula, and changed the balance of power in the Middle East for good.  

Sending Everything

Of course, the Arab-Israeli war was not over. Pitched battles flared along the Egyptian border in 1969 and 1970. By 1973, Egypt and Syria were ready to launch their own surprise attack. If there was ever any doubt about Israel’s importance to the United States, it was put to rest in October 1973.  

Unlike previous clashes, this one would not end in an Israeli rout. As historian Paul Johnson notes, “A large part of the Israeli air force was destroyed by Soviet ground-to-air missiles.”[5] This effectively checked Israel’s air superiority, which had been so critical to the 1967 victory. Thus, with a 5-to-1edge in armor, Egyptian and Syrian tanks sent IDF ground forces reeling, especially on the Syrian front. Less than half of the Israeli tanks on the outer defensive perimeter survived the first wave. Almost 2700 Israelis were killed before the battle turned.   

In a faint echo of the exchange between Truman and Marshall a quarter-century earlier, it was President Richard Nixon who cautioned his secretary of state to avoid being perceived as pro-Israel, lest America jeopardize its relationship with the oil-rich Gulf states. However, with the Soviets airlifting supplies into Egypt, Iraqi troops on the way to support Syria, and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir contemplating the nuclear option, Nixon dropped any pretense of impartiality. Faced with the prospect of being overrun, Meir’s government made an urgent appeal to Washington. The IDF needed missilery, warplanes, and ammunition of all kinds. Nixon’s response was unequivocal: “Send everything that can fly.”[6]  

Dubbed “Operation Nickel Grass,” the 31-day US airlift delivered 22,395 tons of war materiel to Israel. At $2.2 billion, the emergency aid shipment can only be described as massive. The shipments included fighter-bombers, tanks, and ammunition. And according to the Israeli government and military, they made all the difference. “The arrival of tanks and artillery shells enabled us to complete our missions,” recalled Maj. Gen. Itzhak Hoffi, who commanded Israel’s northern front. “For generations to come,” Meir declared after the war, “all will be told of the miracle of the immense planes from the United States bringing in the material that meant life to our people.”[7] 

However, America did much more than simply send a few cargo planes. It literally stood with Israel in its darkest hour: In a sign of US resolve, Nixon dispatched two carrier battle groups to the eastern Mediterranean during the war. When the Soviets threatened to intervene directly by dropping paratroopers into the Sinai, Washington raised the Pentagon’s worldwide defense condition to DEFCON 3—an unmistakable message to Moscow that Israel’s security was of vital importance to the United States. Of course, the American people took perhaps the most bruising blow on Israel’s behalf after the war. Just as Nixon had feared, the oil-rich Arab states punished Washington by launching an oil embargo, thus setting a time bomb that would cripple the US economy for a decade.   

On the Frontlines

To be sure, the relationship has had its strains. Israel was caught in the diplomatic crossfire when Eisenhower blocked Britain and France from seizing the Suez Canal. The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967 is still an open wound for many in the United States. Likewise, Washington’s constant restraining of Israel, from the first Gulf War Scud attacks to the second Intifada, angers many in Israel. The Jonathan Pollard spy case raises voices and tempers on both sides of the alliance. 

Yet in the sweep of history—and in the shadow of a global war—these strains are put into perspective. The United States and Israel share the same goal—not just peace, not just security, not just freedom, but the confluence of these three. Likewise, these two democracies fight the same enemy, albeit on different fronts.

It’s regrettable that most Americans didn’t realize this until September 11, 2001. Al Qaeda is just one branch of a global terror network that has been fighting America and Israel for decades. As evidence, consider that a full year before the attacks on Manhattan and Washington, the FBI arrested 23 members and supporters of Hizballah—in suburban North Carolina of all places. Hizballah advocates the elimination of Israel, and it’s worth noting that before September 11, Hizballah had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group on earth.[8] In February of 2003, eight people were arrested in Florida for supporting Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terror group responsible for at least 100 murders in Israel.

Instead of connecting the dots, however, most Americans gasped at the IDF’s brutal tactics and scoffed about its determination to see justice done. We lectured the Israeli government about preemptive strikes and security zones. We asked Israeli leaders to understand the enemy’s grievances and forced them to shake hands with mass-murderers. We pressured Israel to "take risks for peace" and smirked at its chemical-attack drills. Perhaps worst of all, we didn’t appreciate, or even consider, that Israel was a frontline state in our war. Like Britain in the early years of World War II, like Turkey and Germany and Korea during the Cold War, Israel stood its post in a war we fought at arm’s length.  

We are not smirking or scoffing anymore, and we no longer have the luxury of fighting this war at arm’s length. The carnage of September 11 was only an exclamation point to a half-century of terror—much of which went unpunished, and all of which led inexorably, if indirectly, to that awful Tuesday morning. As Israel knows, the terrorists have been waging this war far longer than Americans care to admit. According to Johnson, in 1980 alone there were some 1,700 international terrorist incidents. By the mid-1980s, radical Islamic terrorism had claimed well over 250 American lives. The enemy imprisoned American civilians in Tehran, kidnapped American emissaries in the Middle East, and bombed American servicemen in Berlin and Beirut. Of course, even then America was oblivious. From Pan Am 103 to the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 to the embassy attacks in 1998 to the USS Cole attack in 2000, we treated bin Laden and his forerunners and followers like a mob family rather than what they are—a motivated and tenacious military adversary. 

In a sense, when the World Trade Towers fell from the sky, the scales fell from America’s eyes, and America finally saw the world the way it was—the way Israel has always known it. It is not hopeless or beyond repair. However, nor is it the seamless network of economic partnerships and enlightened actors we pretended it to be in the 1990s. As before, it is a world where creed and ideology and force mean more than money, where freedom and civilization must be defended with weapons, not words. As we have witnessed in the diplomatic spectacle surrounding Iraq, this reality bothers the UN class. However, those who dare expose this reality bother the UN class even more—and this is precisely what America has done during the past 18 months. Like Israel before it, the United States has decided to pursue justice rather than settling for appeasement. Like Israel before it, the United States has found a hostile audience at the United Nations as a consequence.  

We have much to learn from Israel as the war on terror progresses, from homeland security to counter-intelligence to military planning. In John Kennedy’s time, all free men were Berliners. Today, it seems, we are all Israelis.  

Indeed, Israel’s grim history may be America’s foreseeable future. Washington is already putting some of Israel’s lessons into practice. What Israel did in 1967, when it struck preemptively to avoid encirclement, America now does to forestall a nuclear cataclysm. What Israel did after the Munich massacre, when it hunted down the guilty one by one, US Special Forces now do in the jungles, deserts, and cities where terrorism breeds. What Israel did in 1981, when it leveled Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility, the Pentagon now contemplates on a global scale to prevent something much worse than September 11.  

No More Secrets

Even after Iraq is purged of Saddam Hussein, Israel’s neighborhood will remain a major theater in the war on terror. Washington is turning to Israel for moral and material support in this campaign of campaigns, and Israel is answering the call—in stark contrast to the disappointing behavior of longtime allies in Turkey and Germany, and the typical behavior of France.  

For example, the Pentagon has pre-positioned vast stores of equipment throughout Israel, including a 500-bed hospital, military vehicles, warplanes, and $500 million in ammunition. Washington deployed a high-tech missile-warning system, a two-star general, and nearly 1,000 troops to Israel in the buildup to an invasion of Iraq. The two countries conducted military exercises in the winter of 2003. Israel and the United States have even set up a joint-command center in Tel Aviv to monitor air operations in real time.  

For years, such cooperation was carried out in secret, but there is no longer any reason for pretense or ambiguity. As in 1948 and 1973, Israel needs America—and America needs Israel.

[1] See Peter Grier, “The US and Israel,” Christian Science Monitor, 10-26-01.
[2] Merle Miller, Ike the Soldier, pp.774-775.
[3] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p.217.
[4] Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p.666.
[5] Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p.668.
[6] Charles Ramey, “Dover remembers Operation Nickel Grass,” Air Force News Service, 23 October 1998.
[7] Charles Ramey, “Dover remembers Operation Nickel Grass,” Air Force News Service, 23 October 1998.
[8]Louis Freeh, statement to committees of the U.S. Senate, May 10, 2001.